Where have I been? How could I not have heard about a new Rambo movie coming out until two days before I went to see it? Ha ha, I said. Sure, I’ll go see a new freaking Rambo! I’m so bored by so-called action movies these days, at least this new Rambo might hold some anthropological value. How will this most cartoonishly macho of movie franchises adapt to the 21st century? And what of its geopolitics? I never did see Rambo III, or whatever it was called, but didn’t it have Rambo fighting alongside yesterday’s Afghani freedom fighters, i.e. today’s terrorists? And though it was mostly yellow brothers blown sky-high with their bamboo compounds in the first Rambo, I seem to recall some Russian commandos sending nervous geopolitical tingles up my spine as John Rambo took them out, one by one. Who’s next? What national or ethnic group to single out for some righteous payback? Chinese? Iranians? The French?
I remember being distinctly nervous before the first Rambo, which I saw with my dad when my mom and sisters were out of town: Could I handle it? What if I hauled off and puked from grossness? And damned if I wasn’t all aflutter in my seat the other night before the new Rambo. Not worried about puking from grossness, but genuinely foot-tapping impatient to see what a new Rambo had in store after a 20-year hiatus.
Great, great start. I love it when a movie is off and running even before the studio logo is off the screen, like in Raiders of the Lost Ark where the Paramount logo dissolves into a real mountain, or the beginning of Waterworld, which was in fact the only good thing about Waterworld. Rambo begins with a chatter of voices fading in on the soundtrack, a few moments of black screen and then an intense prologue montage of (simulated?) news footage of the ongoing civil war in Burma between the Karen tribesmen and the Burmese government. My stomach was clenched up tighter with anticipation in the first five minutes of Rambo than in the first five minutes of any movie since Children of Men. What gastrointestinal flip-flops: the news montage cuts to a scene of Burmese soldiers tossing antipersonnel mines into a rice paddy and then making Karen villagers dash through it. The fountains of gore are but a foretaste of the feast to come.
Then we see John Rambo contentedly capturing wild cobras and spearfishing his dinner from the bow of his river boat with his trusty compound bow. Somewhere in all this is a quick title sequence, which arguably provides the flesh-crawlingest, spine-tinglingest, stomach-churningest moment in all the Rambo movies: “A Film by Sylvester Stallone.”
For those first 10 minutes or so, Rambo feels very fresh. The news footage looks like the real news from Burma just two or three months ago, and the genocide is real as well. Think of all the movies that have come out since the first Rambo in which intense, controversial violence is legitimized and vindicated by actual events: Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and Hotel Rwanda to name just three. For a minute, there, Rambo looks as though its director aspires to the same level of hard but “necessary” viewing.
But not for long. After this overwhelming prelude, it’s back to basics with John Rambo: monosyllabic, fatalistic, uncommunicative. The potential love interest is quickly and clumsily introduced—she’s a volunteer with a faith-based group that wants to bring medical supplies to Karen people in the war zone, and a really cute volunteer. Rambo asks if the group is bringing weapons, and when they say no, he tells them to forget it. She and her companions want to change things, and he flatly informs them nothing ever changes. “Go home,” he tells them, and enjoy their nice lives. It’s up to her to seek him out in private—blouse clinging tightly and streaming rainwater—to change his mind. It’s 1985 all over again!
Stallone couldn’t have written a more self-serving part for this character if he tried. If Stallone the actor, at 62, is still credible as an ex-Green Beret, Stallone the director is calcified in the action movie clichés of his heyday. Later the pretty volunteer gives him her necklace, and later still we see him sitting around rubbing it wistfully. Just like in the other Rambo. I mean, who does that? It’s positively refreshing how little Stallone and John Rambo have changed with the times.
Fans will not be disappointed. It’s incredibly violent, the biggest difference being that the new Rambo’s violence is an unnerving mix of previous cartoonishness and Saving Private Ryan-style realism, right down to the stroboscopic step-printing process that has become industry-standard for combat violence since the latter movie’s release. As for the skimpy plot, I overheard this incisive critique from another audience member as we were filing out afterwards: “There was more story in the mailbox at the end than in the rest of the movie.” For fans of the last three, of course, that’s an endorsement.